Create a stylized fantasy feline
My name is April Prime, I'm an Australian artist currently living and working in Canada. I'm the co-creator (along with the amazing Russ Charles) of Dungeons & Doggies and Cats & Catacombs, so I've been doing a lot of stylized fantasy art lately!
In this tutorial I'll be going over the step-by-step process I usually take when I paint more illustrative pieces, and this time round it's a sneaky merchant catfolk. My process is quite straightforward; I'll mostly be using the basic Photoshop brushes (Hard round and Chalk), a Smudge brush, and the Multiply blending option.
Bring a cheeky catfolk merchant to life!
Step 01: Rough sketches
The first thing I do is a few rough sketches, mostly focusing on an interesting silhouette and cool shapes. I know I want to do some sort of catfolk potion or goods peddler, so I looked at a few references images of calico coat exotic shorthair cats and Japanese bobtails.
Some very messy sketches – don't focus too much on detail here.
Step 02: Final sketch
The finalized sketch! It's still fairly loose, as I know I'll be painting over the lineart. You might be more comfortable with an even looser sketch, or perhaps you need more tight framework to go off, both of those are fine too! I find the more realistic the character I do, the more detailed my sketch has to be. This guy is a fun stylized character so I'm not going to worry too much.
Step 03: Base color/flats
Here I've gone in with just a basic Photoshop hard brush and filled in roughly with the colors I'm going to use. In the end, I inverted the blue and yellow (as you'll see in the next steps) as I felt that the warm colors of the catfolk's fur blended in too much with the yellow fabric. My colors are simple and the costume has little patterning, as I want the interesting patches or the cat's fur to standout.
laying down the base work
Step 04: Shadows on Multiply
Here is when a flat drawing starts to come to life! As you can see, I decided to change the colors up, and I've also flipped the image and put it on a black background (I find this helps me to solidify the lighting on the image I want to paint.) The first shadow pass is one of my favorite parts of the image. First I lower the opacity of the lineart (usually below 30%) then, using the soft Airbrush on a new layer set to 'multiply', I start to carve out the form with shadows.
Starting to look like something now...
Step 05: Shadow Color
The color of your shadows matters! In general, warm light will produce a cool shadow, and a cool light will have a warm shadow. This isn't always the case, but injecting a small amount of color into your shadows will give your illustration a lot more vibrancy. Using only gray tones in shadows will end up looking a little flatter. I end up using a combination of both warm and cool shadows, but for this first pass, I went with the warm tones, which looks great against all the blues of this cat's costume.
Step 06: Render Pass
At this point, I've flipped my image again - flipping your image is a great way to keep it balanced. You'll notice flaws and be able to catch them sooner this way; it's a good habit to form. I flattened all the layers down and I've begun rendering out some of the areas. There's no real trick to this, all I do is paint over the top of the flattened image on a new layer with a combination of the basic Hard round brushes and a few of the Chalk brushes.
Step 07: Render. Render. Render...
After the base work of the sketch, flats, and first shadow pass is done, we're now in the meat of the painting. I try to work on all areas of the image at once, though I generally like to start off with the face. I've also popped in a rough background for this character to stand against, as sometimes a plain background feels a little too void-like.
Step 08: Paint. Paint. Paint.
Getting stuck into a few more details on the face, remember to use your reference images! I looked at cats yawning, but they tend to have decidedly pointy and needle-like teeth, so sometimes I prefer to use the more rounded and soft look of dog mouths as a reference for friendlier looking characters.
Another good tip is using grays and blues on warm colors (like brown leathers) for highlights. Desaturated hues make the colors around them seem even more vibrant. I've also decided here that his face needs a little more framing, so I added in a similar shiny yellow to the interior of the coat collar.
Step 09: Nearly There
Keep on rendering, we're nearly there. There' some more detail to the face (whiskers, more defined ears, and a wider lip), as well as most of the basics of the clothes and body being done. The potion bottles started to feel like they were clashing a little too much, so I decided to paint them out so I could have a fresh canvas to try out some new ideas.
At this point he could be a cape merchant! "Have you ever felt silk as soft as this, traveler?" Sometimes imaging a little story helps you inject more life into your art, as if this catfolk has been caught mid-sentence peddling his wares.
"The softest silks!"
Step 10: And Done!
In the end, with the scroll on his hip, I figured this merchant is a seller of fake scrolls and other 'magical items' that he tries to pass off as real. You might notice he looks a tad wider too...I decided some parts of the illustration needed a little more exaggeration, so I used the 'Liquify' tool to subtly push and pull a few areas around.
Here for all your 100% authentic magical item needs
Top tip 01: Smudge!
I'm a huge fan of John Silva's smudge brushes; I use them a lot when I do more conceptual work. They’re perfect for fabric, skin, and all sorts of bits and pieces.
They're free on DeviantArt, just search the brush pack name
Top tip 02: Cool Highlights
Here's a little close-up of some of the leather slash-and-puff sleeves and how a desaturated highlight works well with the browns.